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German Nihilism 


Leo Strauss 


The following lecture by Leo Strauss was delivered, according to internal 
textual evidence, on February 26, 1941, in the General Seminar of the Graduate 
Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research 
in New York. The text will prove to be of particular interest both for students of 
Leo Strauss’s thought and for those more generally interested in the intellectual 
climate of prewar Germany. For the former, the lecture presents itself as one of 
the rare occasions on which Professor Strauss suspended his customary reti¬ 
cence and directly addressed an important contemporary issue. For the latter, it 
offers an interesting and compelling outlook on the intellectual currents of one 
of this century’s key periods. Finally, both audiences will find that Professor 
Strauss combines his philosophical rigor and perspicacity with firsthand knowl¬ 
edge of the problem under discussion. As “a young Jew, bom and raised in 
Germany,” he was without doubt well acquainted with the phenomenon of Ger¬ 
man nihilism, the influence it exerted in postwar and prewar Germany, its key 
representatives and its historical origins. 

The basis of this edition is a typewritten manuscript which can be found in 
the Leo Strauss Papers (Box 8, Folder 15) at the Regenstein Library of The 
University of Chicago. The manuscript consists of twenty-five mostly typewrit¬ 
ten pages. It bears many corrections and additions, some of them inserted by 
typewriter, some by hand. In preparing the text, we have systematically incor¬ 
porated the changes and additions made by Professor Strauss so that the present 
edition might faithfully reflect his actual presentation. We note the few in¬ 
stances in which we have edited for readability. We have also taken the liberty 
of correcting, without comment, a few misspellings in the typescript. At some 
points in the text Professor Strauss made a more substantial addition in hand¬ 
writing: these are mentioned in the text, with a short comment. In some cases 
the handwriting was difficult to read or altogether illegible: this is indicated 


© interpretation, spring 1999, Vol. 26, No. 3 



354 • Interpretation 

between parentheses in the text, as well as in the notes. Certain words were 
underlined by Professor Strauss, some by typewriter, some by hand: in the 
present edition these have been italicized. With a view to restricting the number 
of notes, single words which were either added or underlined by hand are indi¬ 
cated in the text with an asterisk immediately following the word. Words from 
languages other than English have been italicized by the editors. Finally, we 
have added some additional information concerning names, sources and dates 
in the notes. 

As the reader will remark, the present edition begins with two different ta¬ 
bles of contents. The first of these is part of the original typescript, while the 
second was found on a handwritten sheet attached to the typescript. The latter, 
however, provides a more accurate synopsis of the contents of the lecture as it 
is presented. For this reason, we have chosen to include it directly after the 
original table of contents. 

We are grateful to Professor Jenny Strauss Clay and Professor Joseph Cropsey 
for their generous help in deciphering Professor Strauss’s handwriting. Professor 
Cropsey, Leo Strauss’s literary executor, has also generously given permission for 
this publication. 



German Nihilism • 355 

Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science 

New School for Social Research, 66 West 12 Street, New York, N. Y. 

General Seminar: Experiences of the Second World War 

February 26, 1941 

German Nihilism—Leo Strauss 

I. The questions: (a) What is nihilism? (b) How far can nihilism be said to be 
a specifically German phenomenon? 

II. German nihilism is a phenomenon much broader than National Socialism. 
It can be described provisionally as the passionate reaction of a certain type of 
young atheist to the communist ideal. 

III. The nihilism of the young and the positivism of the old. 

IV. The nihilistic meaning of the term “wave of the future.” 

V. Nihilism is defined as the rejection of the principles of civilization as such. 

VI. German nihilism rejects the principles of civilization as such in favor of 
war and of warlike ideals. 

VII. German nihilism is a radicalized form of German militarism. 

VIII. One of the roots of German militarism is moralism. 

IX. The present Anglo-German war is a war about principles. 

German Nihilism 

1. The questions: What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be a 
specifically German phenomenon? 

2. German nihilism is the genus, of which National socialism is the best- 
known species. 



356 • Interpretation 


I. The ultimate, non-nihilistic motive underlying German nihilism. 

3. The inseparable connection of morality and the closed society: the 
moral protest against the principle of modem civilisation. 

II. The situation in which that non-nihilistic motive led to nihilism. 

4. German nihilism is the reaction of a certain type of young atheist to the 
communist ideal or prediction. 

5. On the affinity of youth to nihilism, and the nihilistic consequences of 
the emancipation of youth. 

6. On the affinity of progressivism to nihilism: progressivism leaves the 
aim undefined; it therefore opposes an indefinite No to the given order. 

III. What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be specifically Ger¬ 
man? 

7. Nihilism is the rejection of the principles of civilisation as such. Civil¬ 
isation is the conscious culture of human reason, i.e. science and morals. 

8. Nihilism in the sense defined is characteristic of present day Germany 
rather than of any other country. 

9. German nihilism rejects the principles of civilisation as such in favor of 
war and the warlike virtues. 

10. German nihilism is therefore akin to German militarism. 

11. German nihilism is a radicalized form of German militarism, and that 
radicalization is due to the victory of the romantic opinion concerning the 
modem development as a whole. 

12. German nihilism is related to the reaction to the modem ideal which 
is characteristic of German idealist philosophy: morality of self-sacrifice 
and self-denial vs. morality of self-interest; courage is the only unambig¬ 
uously non-utilitarian virtue. 

13. German idealism, while opposing Western philosophy, claimed to be a 
synthesis of the modem ideal with the pre-modem ideal; that synthesis did 
not work; the influence of German idealism made the acceptance of the 
modem ideal impossible; the Germans had to fall back on the pre-modem 
ideal: that is to say, on the pre-modem ideal as interpreted by German 
idealism, i.e., as interpreted in a polemic intention against the enlighten¬ 
ment; and therefore: on a modem distortion of the pre-modem ideal. 

14. The modem ideal is of English origin: the German tradition is a tradi¬ 
tion of criticism of the modem ideal. While the English found a working 
amalgamation of the modem ideal with the classical ideal, the Germans 
overemphasized the break in the tradition so much that they were ultimately 
led from the rejection of modem civilisation to the rejection of the principle 
of civilisation as such, i.e., to nihilism. The English gentlemen as an im¬ 
perial nation vs. the German Herren as a nation of provincial, resentful 
fanatics. 



German Nihilism • 357 


GERMAN NIHILISM. 

LECTURE TO BE DELIVERED ON FEBRUARY, 26, 1941. 

1. What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be a specifically 
German phenomenon? I am not able to answer these questions; I can merely try 
to elaborate* them a little. For the phenomenon which I am going to discuss, is 
much too complex, and much too little explored, to permit of an adequate 
description within the short time at my disposal. I cannot do more than to 
scratch its surface. 

2. When we hear at the present time the expression “German nihilism,” most 
of us naturally think at once of National Socialism. It must however be under¬ 
stood from the outset that National Socialism is only the most famous* form of 
German nihilism—its lowest, most provincial, most unenlightened and most 
dishonourable form. It is probable that its very vulgarity accounts for its great, 
if appalling, successes. These successes may be followed by failures, and ulti¬ 
mately by complete defeat. Yet the defeat of National Socialism will not neces¬ 
sarily mean the end of German nihilism. For that nihilism has deeper roots than 
the preachings of Hitler, Germany’s defeat in the World War and all that. 

To explain German nihilism, I propose to proceed in the following way. I 
shall first explain the ultimate motive which is underlying German nihilism; this 
motive is not in itself nihilistic. I shall then describe the situation in which that 
non-nihilistic motive led to nihilistic aspirations. Finally, I shall attempt to give 
such a definition of nihilism as is not assailable from the point of view of the 
non-nihilistic motive in question, and on the basis of that definition, 1 to describe 
German nihilism somewhat more fully. 

3. Nihilism might mean: velle nihil , to will the nothing, the destruction of 
everything, including oneself, and therefore primarily the will to self-destruc¬ 
tion. I am told that there are human beings who have such strange desires. I do 
not believe, however, that such a desire is the ultimate motive of German nihil¬ 
ism. Not only does the unarmed eye not notice any unambiguous signs of a will 
to ^//^-destruction. But even if such a desire were demonstrated* to be the 
ultimate motive, we still should be at a loss to understand why that desire took 
on the form, not of the mood called fin de siecle or of alcoholism, but of 
militarism. To explain German nihilism in terms of mental diseases, is even less 
advisable than it is to explain in such terms the desire of a cornered gangster to 
bump off together with himself a couple of cops and the fellow who double- 
crossed him; not being a Stoic, I could not call that* desire a morbid desire. 2 

The fact of the matter is that German nihilism is not absolute nihilism, desire 
for the destruction of everything including oneself, but a desire for the destruction 
of something specific:* of modem civilisation. That, if I may say so, limited 
nihilism becomes an almost* absolute nihilism only for this reason: because the 
negation of modem civilisation, the No, is not guided, or accompanied, by any 
clear positive conception. 



358 • Interpretation 


German nihilism desires the destruction of modem civilisation as far as mod¬ 
em civilisation has a moral meaning. As everyone knows, it does not object so 
much to modem technical* devices. That moral meaning of modem civilisation 
to which the German nihilists object, is expressed in formulations such as these: 
to relieve man’s estate; or: to safeguard the rights of man; or: the greatest possible 
happiness of the greatest possible number. What is the motive underlying the 
protest against modem civilisation, against the spirit of the West*, and in particu¬ 
lar of the Anglo-Saxon* West? 

The answer must be: it is a moral protest. That protest proceeds from the 
conviction that the internationalism inherent in modem civilisation, or, more 
precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is as it were 
the goal of modem civilisation, and therefore all aspirations directed toward 
that goal, are irreconcilable with the basic demands of moral life. That protest 
proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and 
therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society 
is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of 
pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility 
and lack of seriousness. 3 

Moral life, it is asserted, means serious life. Seriousness, and the ceremonial 
of seriousness—the flag and the oath to the flag—, are the distinctive features 
of the closed society, of the society which by its very nature, is constantly 
confronted with, and basically oriented toward, the Ernstfall, the serious mo¬ 
ment, M-day, war. Only life in such a tense atmosphere, only a life which is 
based on constant awareness of the sacrifices* to which it owes its existence, 
and of the necessity, the duty of sacrifice of life and all worldly goods, is truly 
human: the sublime is unknown to the open society. 4 The societies of the West 
which claim to aspire toward the open society, actually are closed societies in a 
state of disintegration: their moral value, their respectability, depends entirely 
on their still being closed societies. 

Let us pursue this argument a little further. The open society, it is asserted, is 
actually impossible. Its possibility is not proved at all by what is called the 
progress* toward the open society. For that progress is largely fictitious or 
merely verbal. Certain basic facts of human nature which have been honestly 
recognized by earlier generations who used to call a spade a spade, are at the 
present time verbally denied, superficially covered over by fictions legal and 
others, e.g., by the belief that one can abolish war by pacts not backed by 
military forces punishing him who breaks the pact, or by calling ministries of 
war* ministries of defence* or by calling punishment sanctions, or by calling 
capital punishment das hochste Strafmass. 5 The open society is morally inferior 
to the closed society also* because the former is based on hypocrisy. 

The conviction underlying the protest against modem civilisation has ba¬ 
sically nothing to do with bellicism, with love of war; nor with nationalism: for 
there were closed societies which were not nations; it has indeed something to 



German Nihilism • 359 


do with what is called the sovereign state, insofar as the sovereign state offers 
the best modem example of a closed society in the sense indicated. The convic¬ 
tion I am trying to describe, is not, to repeat, in its origin a love of war: it 
is rather a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality. 
The historians in our midst know that conviction, or passion, from Glaukon’s, 
Plato’s brother’s, passionate protest against the city of pigs, in the name of 
noble virtue. They know it, above all, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s passionate 
protest against the easy-going and somewhat rotten civilisation of the century of 
taste, and from Friedrich Nietzsche’s passionate protest against the easy-going 
and somewhat rotten civilisation of the century of industry. It was the same 
passion—let there be no mistake about that—which turned, if in a much more 
passionate and infinitely less intelligent form, against the alleged or real corrup¬ 
tion of post-war Germany: against “the subhuman beings of the big cities ( die 
Untermenschen der Grossstadt ),” against “cultural bolshevism ( Kulturbolsche- 
wismus ),” etc. That passion, or conviction is then not in itself nihilistic, as is 
shown by the examples of Plato and Rousseau, if examples are needed at all. 
(One may even wonder whether it was not a sound demand, remembering, e.g., 
the decision of the Oxford students not to fight for king and country and some 
more recent facts.) While not being nihilistic in itself, and perhaps even not 
entirely unsound, that conviction led however to nihilism in post-war Germany 
owing to a number of circumstances. Of those circumstances, I shall mention in 
the survey which follows, only those which, to my mind, have not been suffi¬ 
ciently emphasized in the discussions of this seminar nor in the literature on the 
subject. 6 

4. One would have to possess a gift which I totally lack, the gift of a lyrical 
reporter, in order to give those of you who have not lived for many years in 
post-war Germany, an adequate* idea of the emotions underlying German nihil¬ 
ism. 7 Let me tentatively define nihilism as the desire to destroy the present 
world and its potentialities, a desire not accompanied by any clear conception 
of what one wants to put in its place. And let us try to understand how such a 
desire could develop. 

No one could be satisfied with the post-war world. German liberal democ¬ 
racy of all descriptions seemed to many people to be absolutely unable to cope 
with the difficulties with which Germany was confronted. This created a pro¬ 
found prejudice, or confirmed a profound prejudice already in existence, against 
liberal democracy as such. Two articulate alternatives to liberal democracy were 
open. One was simple reaction, as expressed by the Crown Prince Ruprecht of 
Bavaria in about these terms: “Some people say that the wheel of history cannot 
be turned back. This is an error.” The other alternative was more interesting. 
The older ones in our midst still remember the time when certain people as¬ 
serted that the conflicts inherent in the present situation would necessarily lead 
to a revolution, accompanying or following another World War—a rising of the 
proletariat and of the proletarianized strata of society which would usher in the 



360 • Interpretation 


withering away of the State, the classless society, the abolition of all exploita¬ 
tion and injustice, the era of final peace. It was this prospect at least as much as 
the desperate present, which led to nihilism. The prospect of a pacified planet, 
without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and con¬ 
sumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as mate¬ 
rial merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and 
very decent, if very young, Germans. They did not object to that prospect be¬ 
cause they were worrying about their own economic and social position; for 
certainly in that respect they had no longer anything to lose. Nor did they object 
to it for religious reasons; for, as one of their spokesmen (E. Jiinger) said, they 
knew* that they were the* sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of godless 
men. What they hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone 
would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure 
by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could 
beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, unmetaphoric, sacri¬ 
fice, i.e. a world without blood, sweat, and tears. What to the communists 
appeared to be the fulfilment of the dream of mankind, appeared to those young 
Germans as the greatest debasement of humanity, as the coming of the end of 
humanity, as the arrival of the latest man. They did not really know, and thus 
they were unable to express in a tolerably clear language, what they desired to 
put in the place of the present world and its allegedly necessary future or se¬ 
quel: the only thing of which they were absolutely certain was that the present 
world and all the potentialities of the present world as such, must be destroyed 
in order to prevent the otherwise necessary coming of the communist final 
order: literally anything, the nothing* the chaos, the jungle, the Wild West, the 
Hobbian state of nature, seemed to them infinitely better than the communist- 
anarchist-pacifist future. 8 Their Yes was inarticulate—they were unable to say 
more than: No! This No proved however sufficient as the preface to action, to 
the action of destruction. This is the phenomenon which occurs to me first 
whenever I hear the expression German nihilism. 

It is hardly necessary to point out the fallacy committed by the young men in 
question. They simply took over the communist thesis that the proletarian revo¬ 
lution and proletarian dictatorship is necessary, if civilisation is not to perish. 
But they insisted rather more than the communists on the conditional character 
of the communist prediction (if civilisation is not to perish). That condition left 
room for choice: they chose what according to the communists was the only 
alternative to communism. In other words: they admitted that all rational argu¬ 
ment was in favour of communism; but they opposed to that apparently invinc¬ 
ible argument what they called “irrational decision.” Unfortunately, all rational 
argument they knew of, was historical argument, or more precisely: statements 
about the probable future, predictions, which were based on analysis of the 
past, and above all, of the present. For that modem astrology, predicting social 



German Nihilism • 361 


science, had taken hold of a very large part of the academic youth. I have 
emphasized before that the nihilists were young people. 9 

5. One or the other modem pedagogue would perhaps feel that not everything 
was bad in that nihilism. For, he might argue, it is not unnatural that the intel¬ 
ligent section of a young generation should be dissatisfied with what they are told 
to believe by the older generation, and that they should have a strong desire for a 
new word, for a word expressing their longings, and, considering that moderation 
is not a virtue of youth, for an extreme word. Moreover, he would conceivably 
say, it is not unnatural that the young people, being constitutionally unable to 
discover that new word, are unable to express in articulate language more than 
the negation of the aspirations of the older generation. A lover of paradoxes 
might be tempted to assert an essential affinity of youth to nihilism. I should be 
the last to deny the juvenile character of that specific nihilism which I have tried 
to describe. But I must disagree with the modem pedagogue all the more in so far 
as I am convinced that about the most dangerous thing for these young men was 
precisely what is called progressive education: they rather needed old-fashioned 
teachers , such old-fashioned teachers of course as would be undogmatic enough 
to understand the aspirations of their pupils. Unfortunately, the belief in 
old-fashioned teaching declined considerably in post-war Germany. The inroads 
which William II had made on the old and noble educational system founded by 
great liberals of the early 19th century, were not discontinued, but rather enlarged 
by the Republic. To this one may add the influence of the political emancipation 
of youth, the fact frequently referred to as the children’s vote. Nor ought we to 
forget that some of the young nihilists who refused to undergo severe intellectual 
discipline* were sons or younger brothers of men and women who had under¬ 
gone what may be described as the emotional discipline of the youth movement, 
of a movement which preached the emancipation of youth. Our century has once 
been called the century of the child: in Germany it proved to be the age of the 
adolescent. Needless to say that not in all cases was* the natural progress from 
adolescence to senility ever interrupted by a period however short of maturity. 
The decline of reverence for old age found its most telling expression in Hitler’s 
shameless reference to the imminent death of the aged President Hindenburg. 

I have alluded to the fact that the young nihilists were atheists. Broadly 
speaking, prior to the World War, atheism was a preserve of the radical left, just 
as throughout history atheism had been connected with philosophic material¬ 
ism. German philosophy was predominantly idealistic, and the German idealists 
were theists or pantheists. Schopenhauer was, to my knowledge, the first non 
materialist and conservative German philosopher who openly professed his 
atheism. But Schopenhauer’s influence fades into insignificance, if compared 
with that of Nietzsche. Nietzsche asserted that the atheist assumption is not only 
reconcilable with, but indispensable for, a radical anti-democratic, anti-socialist, 
and anti-pacifist policy: according to him, even the communist creed is only a 



362 • Interpretation 


secularized form of theism, of the belief in providence. There is no other phi¬ 
losopher whose influence on postwar German thought is comparable to that of 
Nietzsche, of the atheist Nietzsche. I cannot dwell on this important point, since 
I am not a theologian. A gentleman who is much more versed in theology than 
I am—Professor Carl Mayer of the Graduate Faculty—will certainly devote to 
this aspect of German nihilism all the attention it requires in an article to be 
published in Social Research.' 0 

The adolescents I am speaking of, were in need of teachers who could ex¬ 
plain to them in articulate language the positive, and not merely destructive, 
meaning of their aspirations. They believed to have found such teachers in that 
group of professors and writers who knowingly or ignorantly paved the way for 
Hitler (Spengler, Moeller van den Bruck, Carl Schmitt, [illegible], Ernst Jiinger, 
Heidegger). If we want to understand the singular success, not of Hitler, but of 
those writers, we must cast a quick glance at their opponents who were at the 
same time the opponents of the young nihilists. Those opponents committed 
frequently a grave mistake. They believed to have refuted the No by refuting 
the Yes, i.e. the inconsistent, if not silly, positive assertions of the young men. 
But one cannot refute what one has not thoroughly understood. And many op¬ 
ponents did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the nega¬ 
tion of the present world and its potentialities. As a consequence, the very 
refutations confirmed the nihilists in their belief; all these refutations seemed to 
beg the question; most of the refutations seemed to consist of pueris decantata, 
of repetitions of things which the young people knew already by heart. Those 
young men had come to doubt seriously, and not merely methodically or meth¬ 
odologically, the principles * of modem civilisation; the great authorities of that 
civilisation did no longer impress them; it was evident that only such opponents 
would have been listened to who knew that doubt from their own experience, 
who through years of hard and independent thinking had overcome it. Many 
opponents did not meet that condition. They had been brought up in the belief 
in the principles of modem civilisation; and a belief in which one is brought up, 
is apt to degenerate into prejudice.* Consequently, the attitude of the opponents 
of the young nihilists tended to become apologetic. Thus it came to pass that 
the most ardent upholders of the principle of progress, of an essentially aggres¬ 
sive principle, were compelled to take a defensive stand; and, in the realm of 
the mind, taking a defensive stand looks like admitting defeat. The ideas of 
modem civilisation appeared to the young generation to be the old ideas; thus 
the adherents of the ideal of progress were in the awkward position that they 
had to resist, in the manner of conservateurs, what in the meantime has been 
called the wave of the future. They made the impression of being loaded with 
the heavy burden of a tradition hoary with age and somewhat dusty, whereas 
the young nihilists, not hampered by any tradition, had complete freedom of 
movement—and in the wars of the mind no less than in real wars, freedom of 
action spells victory. The opponents of the young nihilists had all the advantages, 



German Nihilism • 363 


but likewise all the disabilities, of the intellectually propertied class confronted by 
the intellectual proletarian, the sceptic. The situation of modem civilisation in 
general, and of its backbone, which is modem science, both natural and civil in 
particular, appeared to be comparable to that of scholasticism shortly before the 
emergence of the new science of the 17th century: the technical perfection of the 
methods and terminology of the old school, communism included, appeared to be a 
strong argument against the old school. For technical perfection is apt to hide the 
basic problems. Or, if you wish, the bird of the goddess of wisdom starts its flight 
only* when the sun is setting. It was certainly characteristic of German post-war 
thought that the output of technical terms, at no time negligible in Germany, 
reached astronomic proportions. The only answer which could have impressed the 
young nihilists, had to be given in non-technical language. Only one answer was 
given which was adequate and which would have impressed the young nihilists if 
they had heard it. It was not however given by a German and it was given in the 
year 1940 only. Those young men who refused to believe that the period following 
the jump into liberty, following the communist world revolution, would be the 
finest hour of mankind in general and of Germany in particular, would have been 
impressed as much as we were, by what Winston Churchill said after the defeat in 
Flanders about Britain’s finest hour. For one of their greatest teachers had taught 
them to see in Cannae the greatest moment in the life of that glory which was 
ancient* Rome." 

6. I have tried to circumscribe the intellectual and moral situation in which a 
nihilism emerged which was not in all cases base in its origin. Moreover, I take 
it for granted that not everything to which the young nihilists objected, was 
unobjectionable, and that not every writer or speaker whom they despised, was 
respectable. Let us beware of a sense of solidarity which is not limited by 
discretion. And let us not forget that the highest duty of the scholar, truthfulness 
or justice, acknowledges no limits. Let us then not hesitate to look for one 
moment at the phenomenon which I called nihilism, from the point of view of 
the nihilists themselves. “Nihilism,” they would say, is a slogan used by those 
who do not understand the new, who see merely the rejection of their cherished 
ideals, the destruction of their spiritual property, who judge the new by its first 
words and deeds, which are, of necessity, a caricature rather than an adequate 
expression. How can a reasonable man expect an adequate expression of the 
ideal of a new epoch at its beginning, considering that the owl of Minerva starts 
its flight when the sun is setting? The Nazis? Hitler? The less is said about him, 
the better. He will soon be forgotten. He is merely the rather contemptible tool 
of “History”: the midwife who assists at the birth of the new epoch, of a new 
spirit; and a midwife usually understands nothing of the genius at whose birth 
she assists; she is not even supposed to be a competent gynaecologist. A new 
reality is in the making; it is transforming the whole world; in the meantime 
there is: nothing, but—a fertile nothing. The Nazis are as unsubstantial as 
clouds; the sky is hidden at present by those* clouds which announce a devas- 



364 • Interpretation 


tating storm, but at the same time the long-needed rain which will bring new 
life to the dried up soil; and (here I am almost quoting) do not lose hope; what 
appears to you the end of the world, is merely the end of an epoch, of the epoch 
which began in 1517 or so. —I frankly confess, I do not see how those can 
resist the voice of that siren who expect the answer to the first and the last 
question from “History,” from the future as such * who mistake analysis of the 
present or past or future for philosophy; who believe in a progress toward a 
goal which is itself progressive and therefore undefinable; who are not guided 
by a known and stable standard: by a standard which is stable and not change¬ 
able, and which is known and not merely believed. In other words, the lack of 
resistance to nihilism seems to be due ultimately to the depreciation and the 
contempt of reason, which is one and unchangeable or it is not, and of science. 
For if reason is changeable, it is dependent on those forces which cause its 
changes; it is a servant or slave of the emotions', and it will be hard to make a 
distinction which is not arbitrary, between noble and base emotions, once one 
has denied the rulership of reason. A German who could boast of a life-long 
intimate intercourse with the superhuman father of all nihilism, has informed us 
as* reliably, as we were ever informed by any inspired author, that the origina¬ 
tor of all nihilism admitted: “Just despise reason and science, the very highest 
power of man, and I have got you completely.” 12 

7. I had to condense a number of recollections of what I have heard, seen, 
and read while I was living in Germany, into the foregoing fragmentary re¬ 
marks, because I had to convey an impression of an irrational movement and of 
the frequently irrational reactions to it, rather than a reasoned argument. I have 
now, however, reached the point where I can venture to submit a definition of 
nihilism. I do this not without trepidation. Not because the definition which I 
am going to suggest, does not live up to the requirements of an orderly* defini¬ 
tion (for I know that sins of that kind are the ones which are more easily 
forgiven); nor because it is in any way novel, but for precisely the opposite 
reason. 13 It will seem to most of you that it is a commonplace and that it 
consists of commonplaces. The only thing which I can say to justify myself, is 
this: I expected to find a definition of nihilism as a matter of course in Mr. 
Rauschning’s well-known book. Only my failure to discover such a definition 
in that book, gives me the courage to indulge in what you will consider a 
triviality, if a necessary triviality. 

I shall then say: Nihilism is the rejection of the principles of civilisation as 
such. A nihilist is then a man who knows the principles of civilisation, if only in 
a superficial way. A merely uncivilised man, a savage, is not a nihilist. This is 
the difference between Ariovistus, the Teutonic chieftain whom Caesar de¬ 
feated, and Hitler who otherwise have the characteristic qualities of the perfect 
barbarian (arrogance and cruelty) in common. The Roman soldier who dis¬ 
turbed the circles of Archimedes, was not a nihilist, but just a soldier. I said 
civilisation, and not: culture. For I have noticed that many nihilists are great 



German Nihilism • 365 


lovers of culture, as distinguished from, and opposed to, civilisation. Besides, 
the term culture leaves it undetermined what the thing is which is to be culti¬ 
vated (blood and soil or the mind), whereas the term civilisation designates at 
once the process of making man a citizen, and not a slave; an inhabitant of 
cities, and not a rustic; a lover of peace, and not of war; a polite being, and not 
a ruffian. A tribal community may possess a culture, i.e. produce, and enjoy, 
hymns, songs, ornament of their clothes, of their weapons and pottery, dances,* 
fairy tales and what not; it cannot however be civilised. 14 1 wonder whether* the 
fact that Western man lost much of his former pride, a quiet and becoming 
pride, of his being civilised, is not at the bottom of the present lack of resis¬ 
tance to nihilism. 

I shall try to be somewhat more precise. By civilisation, we understand the 
conscious culture of humanity, i.e. of that which makes a human being a human 
being, i e. the conscious* culture of reason. Human reason is active, above all, in 
two ways: as regulating human conduct, and as attempting to understand whatever 
can be understood by man; as practical reason, and as theoretical reason. The 
pillars of civilisation are therefore morals and science, and both united. For science 
without morals degenerates into cynicism, and thus destroys the basis of the 
scientific effort itself; and morals without science degenerates into superstition and 
thus is apt to become fanatic cruelty. Science is the attempt to understand the 
universe and man; it is therefore identical with philosophy; it is not necessarily 
identical with modern * science. By morals, we understand the rules of decent and 
noble conduct, as a reasonable man would understand them; those rules are by their 
nature applicable to any human being, although we may allow for the possibility 
that not all human beings have an equal natural aptitude for decent and noble 
conduct. Even the most violent sceptic cannot help from time to time despising, or 
at least excusing, this or that action and this or that man; a complete analysis of 
what is implied in such an action of despising, or even excusing, would lead to that 
well-known view of morals which I sketched. For our present purpose it will 
suffice if I illustrate decent and noble conduct by the remark that it is equally 
remote from inability to inflict physical or other pain as from deriving pleasure 
from inflicting pain. 15 Or by the other remark that decent and noble conduct has to 
do, not so much with the natural aim of man, as with the means toward that aim: the 
view that the end sanctifies the means, is a tolerably complete expression* of 
immoralism. 

I deliberately excluded “art” from the definition of civilisation. Hitler, the 
best-known champion of nihilism, is famous for his love of art and is even an 
artist himself. But I never heard that he had anything to do with search for truth 
or with any attempt to instill the seeds of virtue into the souls of his subjects. I 
am confirmed in this prejudice concerning “art” by the observation that the 
founding fathers of civilisation who taught us what science is and what morals 
are, did not know the term art as it is in use since about 180 years, nor the term, 
and the discipline, aesthetics which is of equally recent origin. This is not to 



366 • Interpretation 


deny, but rather to assert, that there are close relations between science and 
morals on the one hand, and poetry and the other imitative arts on the other; but 
those relations are bound to be misunderstood, to the detriment of both science 
and morals as well as of poetry, if science and morals are not considered the 
pillars of civilisation. 16 

The definition which I suggested, has another implication, or advantage, 
which I must make explicit.' 7 1 tentatively defined, at the beginning, nihilism as 
the desire to destroy the present civilisation, modern civilisation. By my second 
definition I intended to make clear that one cannot call the most radical critic of 
modem civilisation as such, a nihilist. 

Civilisation is the conscious culture of reason. This means that civilisation is 
not identical with human life or human existence. There were, and there are, 
many human beings who do not partake of civilisation. Civilisation has a natu¬ 
ral basis which it finds, which it does not create, on which it is dependent, and 
on which it has only a very limited influence. Conquest of nature, if not taken 
as a highly poetic overstatement, is a nonsensical expression. The natural basis 
of civilisation shows itself for instance in the fact that all civilised communities 
as well as uncivilised ones are in need of armed force which they must use 
against their enemies from without and against the criminals within. 

8. I presume, it is not necessary to prove that nihilism in the sense defined is 
dominant in Germany, and that nihilism characterizes at present Germany more 
than any other country. Japan, e.g., cannot be as nihilistic as Germany, because 
Japan has been much less civilised in the sense defined than was Germany. If 
nihilism is the rejection of the principles of civilisation as such, and if civilisa¬ 
tion is based on recognition of the fact that the subject of civilisation is man as 
man, every interpretation of science and morals in terms of races, or of nations, 
or of cultures, is strictly speaking nihilistic. Whoever accepts the idea of a 
Nordic or German or Faustic science, e.g., rejects eo ipso the idea of science. 
Different “cultures” may have produced different types of “science”; but only 
one of them can be true , can be science.'* The nihilist implication of the nation¬ 
alist interpretation of science in particular can be described somewhat differ¬ 
ently in the following terms. Civilisation is inseparable from learning, from the 
desire to learn from anyone who can teach us something worthwhile. The na¬ 
tionalist interpretation of science or philosophy implies that we cannot really 
learn anything worthwhile from people who do not belong to our nation or our 
culture. The few Greeks whom we usually have in mind when we speak of the 
Greeks, were distinguished from the barbarians, so to speak exclusively by their 
willingness to learn—even from barbarians; whereas the barbarian, the non- 
Greek barbarian as well as the Greek barbarian, believes that all his questions 
are solved by, or on the basis of, his ancestral tradition. Naturally, a man who 
would limit himself to asserting that one nation may have a greater aptitude to 
understanding phenomena of a certain type than other nations, would not be a 



German Nihilism * 367 


nihilist: not the accidental fate of science or morals, but its essential intention is 
decisive for the definition of civilisation and therewith of nihilism. 

9. The nihilists in general, and the German nihilists in particular reject the 
principles of civilisation as such. The question arises, in favor of what do the 
German nihilists reject those principles? I shall try to answer that question to 
begin with on the basis of Mr. Rauschning’s book. 19 This will give me an oppor¬ 
tunity to elucidate somewhat more the foregoing definition of nihilism. 

Mr. Rauschning has called the foreign and domestic policy of the Nazis “the 
revolution of nihilism.” This means: it is not, as it claims to be, “a new order in 
the making,” but “the wasteful and destructive exploitation of irreplaceable re¬ 
sources, material, mental, and moral, accumulated through generations of fruitful 
labor” (xi). This would mean that N.S. is nihilistic in its effect, but it does not 
necessarily mean that it is nihilistic in its intention. What Rauschning says in this 
passage quoted about the Nazis, might conceivably be* said of the Communist 
revolution as well. And yet, one cannot call communism a nihilist movement. If 
the communist revolution is nihilist, it is so in its consequences, but not in its 
intention. This reminds me of another remark of Rauschning’s: he identifies nihil¬ 
ism with the “destruction of all traditional spiritual standards” (xn). What I object 
to, is the use of the term traditional * in the definition of nihilism. It is evident 
that not all traditional spiritual standards are, by their nature, beyond criticism and 
even rejection: we seek what is good, and not what we have inherited, to quote 
Aristotle. In other words, I believe it is dangerous, if the opponents of National 
Socialism withdraw to a mere conservatism which defines its ultimate goal by a 
specific tradition* The temptation to fall back from an unimpressive present on 
an impressive past—and every past is as such impressive—is very great indeed. 
We ought not, however, cede to that temptation, if for no other reason, at least for 
this that the Western tradition is not so homogeneous as it may appear as long as 
one is engaged in polemics or in apologetics. To mention one example out of 
many: the great tradition of which Voltaire is a representative, is hard to reconcile 
with the tradition of which Bellarmine is a representative, even if both traditions 
should be equally hostile to National Socialism. 20 Besides, I wish, Mr. Rauschning 
had not spoken of spiritual standards; this savours of the view that materialism is 
essentially nihilistic; I believe that materialism is an error, but I have only to 
recall the names of Democritus and Hobbes in order to realize that materialism is 
not essentially nihilistic. Not to mention the fact that a certain anti-materialism or 
idealism is at the bottom of German nihilism. 

Rauschning operates on somewhat safer ground when he stresses the Nazis’ 
lack of any settled aims. He understands then by German nihilism the “permanent 
revolution of sheer destruction” for the sake of destruction, a “revolution for its 
own sake” (248). He stresses the “aimlessness” of the Nazis; he says that they 
have no program except action; that they replace doctrine by tactics (75); he calls 
their revolution “a revolution without a doctrine” (55); he speaks of the “total 



368 • Interpretation 


rejection” by the Nazis “of any sort of doctrine” (56). This appears to be an 
exaggeration. For elsewhere Rauschning says: “One thing National Socialism is 
not: a doctrine or philosophy. Yet it has a philosophy.” (23). Or: “the fight against 
Judaism, while it is beyond question a central element not only in material con¬ 
siderations, but in those of cultural policy, is part of the party doctrine” (22). 2 ' 

Their anti-Jewish policy does seem to be taken seriously by the Nazis. But 
even if it were true, that no single point of the original party program or party 
doctrine had a more than provisional and tactical meaning, we still should be at 
a loss to understand a party, a government, a State—not merely without a 
program or doctrine—but without any aims. For it seems hard to conceive how 
any human being can act without having an aim. John Dillinger probably had 
no program, but he doubtless had an aim. In other words: Rauschning has not 
considered carefully enough the difference between program and aim. If he 
defines nihilism as a political movement without aims, then he defines a non¬ 
entity; if he defines nihilism as a political movement without a program or 
doctrine, then he would have to call all opportunists nihilists, which would be 
too uncharitable to be true. 22 

As a matter of fact, Rauschning does not always deny that the Nazis have 
aims: “a permanent revolution of sheer destruction by means of which a dic¬ 
tatorship of brute force maintains itself in power” (xif.). Here, Rauschning 
states the aim of the Nazis: that aim is their power; they do not destroy in order 
to destroy, but in order to maintain themselves in power. 23 Now, to keep them¬ 
selves in power, they depend, to a certain extent, on their ability to make their 
subjects, the Germans, happy, on their ability to satisfy the needs of the Ger¬ 
mans. This means, as matters stand, that, in order to maintain themselves in 
power, they must embark upon a policy of aggression, a policy directed toward 
world-dominion. 

Rauschning corrects his remark about the aimlessness of the Nazis by saying 
“the German aims are indefinite to-day only because they are infinite” (275). 
Their “goal” is “the world-wide totalitarian empire” (58). They have not only 
aims, their aims form even a hierarchy leading up to a principal aim: “the 
principal aim, the redistribution of the world” (229). German nihilism, as de¬ 
scribed by Rauschning, is then the aspiration to world-dominion exercised by 
the Germans who are dominated in their turn by a German elite] that aspiration 
becomes nihilistic, because it uses any means to achieve its end and thus de¬ 
stroys everything which makes life worth living for any decent or intelligent 
being. However low an opinion we may have of the Nazis, I am inclined to 
believe that they desire German world-dominion not merely as a means for 
keeping themselves in power, but that they derive, so to speak, a disinterested 
pleasure from the prospect of that glamorous goal “Germany ruling the world.” 
I should even go one step further and say that the Nazis probably derive a 
disinterested pleasure from the aspect of those human qualities which enable 
nations to conquer. I am certain that the Nazis consider any pilot of a bomber or 



German Nihilism • 369 


any submarine commander absolutely superior in human dignity to any travel¬ 
ing salesman or to any physician or to the representative of any other relatively 
peaceful occupation. For, a German nihilist much more intelligent and much 
more educated than Hitler himself has stated: “What kind of minds are those 
who do not even know this much that no mind can be more profound and more 
knowing than that of any soldier who fell anywhere at the Somme or in Flan¬ 
ders? This is the standard of which we are in need.” (“Was aber sind das fiir 
Geister, die noch nicht einmal wissen, dass kein Geist tiefer und wissender sein 
kann als der jedes beliebigen Soldaten, der irgendwo an der Somme oder in 
Flandem fiel? Dies ist der Massstab, dessen wir bediirftig sind.” Junger, Der 
Arbeiter, 201.) 24 The admiration of the warrior as a type, the unconditional 
preference given to the warrior as warrior, is however not only genuine in 
German nihilism: it is even its distinctive feature. Our question: in favor of 
what does German nihilism reject the principles of civilisation as such must 
therefore be answered by the statement: that it rejects those principles in favor 
of the military virtues. This is what Mr. Rauschning must have had in mind 
when speaking of “ heroic nihilism”(21). 

War is a destructive business. And if war is considered more noble than 
peace, if war, and not peace, is considered the aim, the aim is for all practical 
purposes nothing other than destruction. There is reason for believing that the 
business of destroying, and killing, and torturing is a source of an almost disin¬ 
terested pleasure to the Nazis as such, that they derive a genuine pleasure from 
the aspect of the strong and ruthless who subjugate, exploit, and torture the 
weak and helpless. 25 

10. German nihilism rejects then the principles of civilisation as such in 
favor of war and conquest, in favor of the warlike virtues. German nihilism is 
therefore akin to German militarism. This compels us to raise the question what 
militarism is. Militarism can be identified as the view expressed by the older 
Moltke in these terms: “Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful 
one.” 26 To believe that eternal peace is a dream, is not militarism, but perhaps 
plain commonsense; it is at any rate not bound up with a particular moral taste. 
But to believe that eternal peace is not a beautiful dream, is tantamount to 
believing that war is something desirable in itself; and to believe that war is 
something desirable in itself, betrays a cruel, inhuman disposition. The view 
that war is good in itself, implies the rejection of the distinction between just 
and unjust wars, between wars of defence and wars of aggression. It is ulti¬ 
mately irreconcilable with the very idea of a law of nations. 

11. German nihilism is akin to German militarism, but it is not identical* 
with it. Militarism always made at least the attempt* to reconcile the ideal of 
war with Kultur, nihilism however* is based on the assumption that Kultur is 
finished. Militarism always recognized that the virtues of peace are of equal 
dignity, or almost equal dignity, with the virtues of war. When denying that the 
rules of decency cannot be applied to foreign policy, it never denied the validity 



370 * Interpretation 


of those rules as regards home policy or private life. It never asserted that 
science is essentially national; it merely asserted that the Germans happen to be 
the teachers of the lesser breeds. German nihilism on the other hand asserts that 
the military virtues, and in particular courage as the ability to bear any physical 
pain, the virtue of the red Indian, is the only virtue left (see Jiinger's essay on 
pain in Blatter und Steine). The only virtue left: the implication is that we live 
in an age of decline, of the decline of the West, in an age of civilisation as 
distinguished from, and opposed to culture; or in an age of mechanic society as 
distinguished from, and opposed to, organic community. In that condition of 
debasement, only the most elementary virtue, the first virtue, that virtue with 
which man and human society stands and falls, is capable to grow. Or, to ex¬ 
press the same view somewhat differently: in an age of utter corruption, the 
only remedy possible is to destroy the edifice of corruption—“das System "— 
and to return to the uncorrupted and incorruptible origin, to the condition of 
potential * and not actual, culture or civilisation: the characteristic virtue of that 
stage of merely potential* culture or civilisation, of the state of nature, is cour¬ 
age and nothing else. German nihilism is then a radicalized form of German 
militarism, and that radicalization is due to the fact that during the last genera¬ 
tion the romantic judgment about the whole modem development, and therefore 
in particular about the present, has become much more generally accepted than 
it ever was even in 19th century Germany.* 21 By romantic judgment, I under¬ 
stand a judgment which is guided by the opinion that an absolutely superior 
order of human things existed during some period of the recorded past. 

12. However great the difference between German militarism and German 
nihilism may be: the kinship of the two aspirations is obvious. German militar¬ 
ism is the father of German nihilism. A thorough understanding of German 
nihilism would therefore require a thorough understanding of German militar¬ 
ism. Why has Germany such a particular aptitude for militarism? A few, ex¬ 
tremely sketchy remarks must here suffice. 

To explain German militarism, it is not sufficient to refer to the fact that 
German civilisation is considerably younger than the civilisation of the Western 
nations, that Germany is therefore perceivably nearer to barbarism than are the 
Western countries. For the civilisation of the Slavonic nations is still younger than 
that of the Germans, and the Slavonic nations do not appear to be as militaristic 
as are* the Germans. To discover the root of German militarism, it might be 
wiser to disregard the prehistory* of German civilisation, and to look at the 
history of German civilisation itself. Germany reached the hey-day of her letters 
and her thought during the period from 1760 to 1830; i.e. after the elaboration of 
the ideal of modem civilisation had been finished almost completely, and while a 
revision of that ideal, or a reaction to that ideal, took place. The ideal of modem 
civilisation is of English and French origin; it is not of German origin. What the 
meaning of that ideal is, is, of course, a highly controversial question. If I am not 
greatly mistaken, one can define the tendency of the intellectual development 



German Nihilism * 371 


which as it were exploded in the French Revolution, in the following terms: to 
lower the moral standards, the moral claims, which previously had been made by 
all responsible teachers, but to take better care than those earlier teachers had 
done, for the putting into practice, into political and legal practice, of the rules of 
human conduct. The way in which this was most effectually achieved, was the 
identification of morality with an attitude of claiming one’s rights, or with en¬ 
lightened self-interest, or the reduction of honesty to the best policy; or the solu¬ 
tion of the conflict between common interest and private interest by means of 
industry and trade. (The two most famous philosophers: Descartes, his generosite, 
and no justice, no duties; Locke: where there is no property, there is no justice.) 
Against that debasement of morality, and against the concomitant decline of a 
truly philosophic spirit, the thought of Germany stood up, to the lasting honour of 
Germany. It was however precisely this reaction to the spirit of the 17th and 18th 
century which laid the foundation for German militarism as far as it is an intellec¬ 
tual phenomenon. Opposing the identification of the morally good with the object 
of enlightened self-interest however enlightened, the German philosophers in¬ 
sisted on the difference* between the morally good and self-interest, between the 
honestum and the* utile', they insisted on self -sacrifice* and self -denial * they 
insisted on it so much, that they were apt to forget the natural aim of man which 
is happiness; happiness and utility as well as commonsense ( Verstandigkeit ) be¬ 
came almost bad names in German philosophy. Now, the difference between the 
noble and the useful, between duty and self-interest is most visible in the case of 
one virtue, courage, military virtue: the consummation of the actions of every 
other virtue is, or may be, rewarded ; it actually pays to be just, temperate, urbane, 
munificent etc.; the consummation of the actions of courage, i.e. death on the 
field of honour, death for one’s country, is never rewarded: it is the flower of self- 
sacrifice. 28 Courage is the only unambiguously unutilitarian virtue. In defending 
menaced morality, i.e. non-mercenary morality, the German philosophers were 
tempted to overstress the dignity of military virtue, and in very important cases, 
in the cases of Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche, they succumbed to that temptation. 
In this and in various other ways, German philosophy created a peculiarly Ger¬ 
man tradition of contempt for commonsense and the aims of human life, as they 
are visualized by commonsense. 

However deep the difference between German philosophy and the philoso¬ 
phy of the Western countries may be: German philosophy ultimately conceived 
of itself as a synthesis of the pre-modem ideal and the ideal of the modem 
period. That synthesis did not work: in the 2nd half of the 19th century, it was 
overrun by Western positivism, the natural child of the enlightenment. Germany 
had been educated by her philosophers in contempt of Western philosophy ( Je 
meprise Locke, is a saying of Schelling’s); she now observed that the synthesis 
effected by her philosophers, of the pre-modem ideal and the modem ideal did 
not work; she saw no way out except to purify German thought completely 
from the influence of the ideas of modem civilisation, and to return to the pre- 



372 * Interpretation 


modem ideal. National Socialism is the most famous, because the most vulgar, 
example of such a return to a pre-modem ideal. On its highest level, it was a 
return to what may be called the pre-literary stage of philosophy, pre-socratic 
philosophy. On all levels, the pre-modem ideal was not a real pre-modem ideal, 
but a pre-modem ideal as interpreted* by the German idealists, i.e. interpreted 
with a polemic intention against the philosophy of the 17th and 18th century, 
and therefore distorted. 29 

Of all German philosophers, and indeed of all philosophers, none exercised 
a greater influence on post-war Germany, none was more responsible for the 
emergence of German nihilism, than was Nietzsche. The relation of Nietzsche 
to the German Nazi* revolution is comparable to the relation of Rousseau to the 
French revolution. That is to say: by interpreting Nietzsche in the light of the 
German revolution, one is very unjust to Nietzsche, but one is not absolutely 
unjust. It may not be amiss to quote one or the other passage from Beyond 
Good and Evil , which are related to our subject: “That is no philosophic race, 
these Englishmen. Bacon represents an attack on the philosophic spirit as such. 
Hobbes, Hume and Locke are a degradation and debasement of the very con¬ 
cept of “philosopher” for more than a century. Against Hume, Kant stood up 
and stood out. It was Locke, of whom Schelling was entitled * to say Je meprise 
Locke. In the fight against English mechanist interpretation of nature [Newton], 
Hegel and Schopenhauer and Goethe were unanimous.” “That what one calls 
the modem ideas, or the ideas of the 18th century, or even the French ideas, 
that ideal, in a word, against which the German spirit stood up with profound 
disgust—it is of English origin, there can be no doubt about that. The French 
have merely been the imitators and actors of those ideas, besides their best 
soldiers, and also, unfortunately, their first and most complete victims.” (aph. 
252 f.) I believe that Nietzsche is substantially correct in asserting that the* 
German tradition is very critical of the ideals of modem civilisation, and those 
ideals are of English origin. He forgets however to add that the English almost 
always had the very un-German prudence and moderation not to throw out the 
baby with the bath, i.e. the prudence to conceive of the modem ideals as a 
reasonable adaptation of the old and eternal ideal of decency, of rule of law, 
and of that liberty which is not license, to changed circumstances. This taking 
things easy, this muddling through, this crossing the bridge when one comes 
to it, may have done some harm to the radicalism of English thought; but it 
proved to be a blessing to English life; the English never indulged in those 
radical breaks with traditions which played such a role on the continent. What¬ 
ever may be wrong with the peculiarly modem ideal: the very Englishmen who 
originated it, were at the same time versed in the classical tradition, and the 
English always kept in store a substantial amount of the necessary counter¬ 
poison. While the English originated the modem ideal—the pre-modem ideal, 
the classical ideal of humanity, was no where better preserved than in Oxford 
and Cambridge. 30 



German Nihilism • 373 


[Editors’ note: following this, the sentence “Whatever may be the outcome 
of this war, it are the English, and not the Germans, who deserve to have an 
empire” has been crossed out. A “ + ” sign above it refers to a handwritten 
paragraph at the bottom of the page, indicating it should be inserted as a re¬ 
placement at this point in the text.] 

The present Anglo-German war is then of symbolic significance. In defend¬ 
ing modem civilisation against German nihilism, the English are defending the 
eternal principles of civilisation. No one can tell what will be the outcome of 
this war. But this much is clear beyond any doubt: by choosing Hitler for their 
leader in the crucial moment, in which the question of who is to exercise mili¬ 
tary rule became the order of the day, the Germans ceased to have any rightful 
claim to be more than a provincial nation; it is the English, and not the Ger¬ 
mans, who deserve to be, and to remain, an imperial nation: [Editors’ note: at 
this point the handwritten insertion ends, and the typescript continues] for only 
the English, and not the Germans, have understood that in order to deserve* to 
exercise imperial rule, regere imperio populos, one must have learned for a 
very long time to spare the vanquished and to crush the arrogant: parcere sub¬ 
jects et debellare super bos. 31 


NOTES 

1. The typescript reads '‘and to describe, on the basis of that definition": a handwritten sign 
indicates the order should be reversed. 

2. The typescript reads “I could not call that desire morbid,” The words “a” before the word 
"morbid” and the word "desire” following it have been added by hand. 

3. For the distinction between "closed society and open society,” see Henri Bergson, Les deux 
sources de la morale et de la religion , chaps. 1 and 4. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion 
(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977). 

4. Preceding “Moral life” is a sentence beginning with a few illegible handwritten words and 
continuing in typewriting with “the typical representation of the open society is believed to be 
Hollywood.” Both the handwritten words and the typewritten sentence have been crossed out. 

The words "—the flag and the oath to the flag—” have been inserted by hand. 

Comma after “existence” inserted by hand. 

5. The words “, it is asserted,” have been inserted by hand. 

Above the word “recognized,” the word “faced” has been added by hand, possibly as an 
alternative. 

The typescript reads “generations who called a spade a spade.” The words “used to” have been 
inserted by hand, while the last two letters of “called” have been crossed out. 

“e.g.” added by hand to replace “i.e.,” which has been crossed out. 

At the end of the sentence, the words “or by calling capital punishment Strafmass" have been 
added by hand. 

6. After “insofar as the sovereign state” the typescript includes “[. . .], the perfect society which 

does not have a superior, [. .],” which has been crossed out. 

“offers’ replaces “is,” which has been crossed out. 

“the best modem example,” added by hand, replaces “the only important contemporary exam¬ 
ple,” which has been crossed out. 

In the typescript, “endangered morality” is followed by the sentence “If there should be a cynic 



374 • Interpretation 


in our midst, he probably would call that love of morality an unhappy or unrequited love, which 
has been bracketed and crossed out by hand. 

The typescript reads “But the historians [. “But” has been crossed out, while the “i” in 
“the” has been capitalized by hand. 

Commas after “conviction,” “passion,” and “city of pigs” inserted by hand. 

For Glaukon’s protest, see Republic , 372c-d; see also Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: 
Rand McNally and Co., 1964), pp. 93-96. 

In the typescript, “It was the same passion" is preceded by “The same passion turned,” which 
has been crossed out. 

Comma after “less intelligent form” inserted by hand. 

Quotation marks have been added by hand around “the subhuman . . , Grossstadt" and "cultural 
bolshevism ( Kulturbolschevismus ).” 

The passage “as is shown by the examples of Plato and Rousseau, if examples are needed at all” 
has been added by hand at the bottom of the typescript, with a sign indicating it should be inserted 
at this point. 

“was” added by hand to replace “is,” which has been crossed out. 

“a sound demand” was added by hand to replace “basically sound,” which has been crossed out. 

Parentheses around “One . . . facts” have been added by hand. 

In the typescript, “sound” has been crossed out and replaced, by hand, by “not entirely un¬ 
sound.” 

Page 5 of the typescript carries the title “German Nihilism,” followed by two paragraphs which 
largely repeat the first two paragraphs above. Both the title and the two paragraphs have been 
crossed out. Presumably, this is where a first draft of the typescript began. Professor Strauss proba¬ 
bly added the first four pages later on: after the two deleted paragraphs, the text continues with a 
paragraph marked “4,” suggesting that he intended to skip the original beginning and continue the 
lecture at this point. With a view to completeness, the editors have included the two paragraphs 
below: 

German Nihilism 

1. (crossed out) What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be a specifically German 
phenomenon? I shall try-—not indeed to answer these questions, but to elaborate them a little. For 
the phenomenon with which I have to deal, is much too complex to permit of an adequate descrip¬ 
tion within the short time at my disposal. I cannot do more than to scratch the surface. I thank in 
advance the discussion speakers who will, no doubt, help me and the passive part of the audience 
toward greater clarity about a phenomenon which is so important to all of us. 

2. (crossed out) When we hear at the present time the expression “German nihilism,” most of us 
naturally think at once of National Socialism. It must however be understood from the outset that 
National Socialism is only one form of German nihilism—its lowest, most provincial, most unintel¬ 
ligent and most dishonourable form. It is probably its very lowness which accounts for its great, if 
appalling, successes. These successes may be followed by failures and ultimately by complete 
defeat. Yet the defeat of National Socialism will not necessarily mean the end of German nihilism. 
For that nihilism has deeper roots than the preachings of Hitter, Germany’s defeat in the (“First” 
crossed out) World War and all that. 

7. “4.” inserted by hand. 

“emotions” added by hand to replace the word “feelings,” which has been crossed out. Under¬ 
lining added by hand. 

8. The typescript has “backward,” with the latter part crossed out. 

Above “interesting,” the word “alluring” has been added by hand, possibly as an alternative. 

“the withering away of the State,” has been inserted by hand. 

“spiritual” has been added by hand to replace “material,” which has been crossed out. 

“material” has been added by hand to replace "spiritual,” which has been crossed out. 

“Wir aber stehen mitten im Experiment; wir treiben Dinge, die durch keine Erfahrung begriindet 
sind. Sohne, Enkel und Urenkel von Gottlosen, denen selbst der Zweifel verdachtig geworden ist, 
marschieren wir durch Landschaften, die das Leben mit hoheren und tieferen Temperaturen bed- 
rohen.” Ernst Jiinger, Der Arbeiter; Herrschaft und Gestalt (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlaganstalt, 



German Nihilism • 375 


1932), pp. 193-94; Werke: Essays II (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1963), Bd. 6, p. 214). [“We, 
however, stand in the middle of the experiment; we are attempting things that have no foundation in 
experience. Sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of godless men, to whom even doubt has become 
suspect, we march through landscapes that threaten life with higher and lower temperatures” (our 
translation).] 

Above “latest,” the word “last” has been added by hand, possibly as an alternative. 

Comma after “clear language” added by hand. 

“the” before “potentialities” added to replace “its” which has been crossed out. 

The words “-anarchist-pacifist” have been inserted by hand. 

9. The underlining of the first “if’ has been crossed-out. 

Colon after “in other words” inserted by hand. 

“they admitted” inserted by hand. 

After “all rational argument” the typescript continues “[. . ] they knew of, i.e. all historical 
argument, i.e. all statements, based on analysis of the previous development and of the present 
situation, about the probable future [. . .].” This part of the sentence has been crossed out. It recurs, 
with some modifications, in the next sentence. 

“was,” after “all rational argument” added by hand, replaces "were,” which has been crossed 

out. 

The words “For that modem,” together with the previous sentence, have been inserted in the 
typescript by hand. 

The sentence reading “astrology [. . .] academic youth” has been inserted by hand at the bottom 
of the page, with a sign indicating it should be inserted at this point in the text. 

This last sentence has been inserted by hand at the bottom of the page, with a “ + ”-sign 
indicating it should be added to the previous sentence. 

10. “5” added by hand to replace “3.” 

“un-” added by hand to “able” after “constitutional.” 

"as” inserted by hand to replace “who,” which has been crossed out. 

The section reading “of the political [. .] the fact” has been added by hand to replace the 

section “on the results of the elections, of what was,” which has been crossed out. 

“children’s vote” has been added by hand to replace “suffrage of children,” which has been 
crossed out. 

“not in all” added by hand to replace “in some,” which has been crossed out. 

“ever” added by hand after “senility” to replace “was never,” which has been crossed out. 
“however short” inserted by hand. 

The long passage, “I have [. .] Social Research,” has been added by hand at the bottom of the 

page, with a sign indicating it should be inserted after “Hindenburg.” 

“asserted” added by hand to replace “showed,” which has been crossed out. 

“more” is a surmise of the editors, as the word is difficult to read. 

Carl Mayer, “On the Intellectual Origin of National Socialism,” Social Research 9 (May 1942): 
225-47. 

11. Illegible word following “Schmitt” added by hand above the line. 

The typescript reads “Juenger,” but as Professor Strauss uses “Jiinger” further on, the editors 
have changed the spelling throughout. 

“seemed” replaces “seems,” of which the last letter has been crossed out. 

The words “consist of pueris decantata, of’ have been added and underlined by hand, to replace 
“be,” which has been crossed out. 

The typescript reads “principles” before “of progress”: the “s” has been crossed out. 

The sentence reading “For technical perfection [.. .). Or, if you wish,” has been added by hand 
to replace the single word “For,” which has been crossed out. 

“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” (Hegel, Philosophy of 
Right [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975], p. 13.) 

“after the defeat in Flanders” is a typewritten insertion. 

“Their Finest Hour” (a speech delivered first by Winston S. Churchill to the House of Commons and 
then broadcast, June 18, 1940), in Into Battle (London: Cassell and Company, 1943), pp. 225-34. 



376 * Interpretation 


Professor Strauss is referring to Oswald Spengler. See Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Um- 
risse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte (Miinchen: Oskar Beck, 1923), Bd. 1, p. 49 |Einleitung, 
13]; The Decline of the West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), p. 36 (Introduction, sec. 13]. At 
Cannae, located in Apulia, the Romans suffered a crushing defeat in the Second Punic War against 
Hannibal (216 B.C.). 

12. “6.” inserted by hand. 

“History” added by hand to replace “the world mind,” which has been crossed out. 

“who” after "midwife” added by hand to replace “which,” which has been crossed out. 

The “H” in “History" has been capitalized by hand. 

The sentence “For if reason’ has been added by hand at the bottom of the page, with a “ + ” 
sign indicating it should be inserted at this point in the text, with “reason” added by hand, to replace 
“it,” which has been crossed out. 

“the very highest power of man,” has been inserted by hand. 

Goethe, Faust 1, 1851-55. 

13. “7.” inserted by hand to replace “5.” 

In the typescript, “a” has been changed to “an” before “orderly.” 

The words “for 1 know [. . .] forgiven” have been added by hand at the bottom of the page, with 
a “ + " sign indicating it should be inserted at this point in the text. Parentheses have been inserted 
by the editors for reasons of clarity. 

14. See Caesar, The Gallic Wars, I, 30-54. 

Livy, The History of Rome, XXV, xxxi, 5-11. 

Commas preceding and following the words “and enjoy” have been added by hand. 

15. The typescript reads "(man]’s place in the universe,” which has been crossed out in favor of 
“the universe and man.” 

“from time to time” is a typewritten insertion. 

Semi-colon after “this or that man” inserted by hand. 

In the typescript, “inability” is followed by “to bear, and,” which has been crossed out. 

“or other” is a typewritten insertion. 

16. In the typescript, "with" is followed by the word “disinterested," which has been crossed 

out. 

Commas after “discipline” and “assert” inserted by hand. 

17. Comma after “advantage” inserted by hand. 

18. “8.” inserted by hand to replace “6.” 

The sentence reading "Japan . . Germany” has been added by hand at the bottom of the page, 
with a sign indicating where it should be inserted in the text. 

“or” added by hand to replace “and,” which has been crossed out, before both “of nations” and 
"of cultures.” 

The sentence reading “Different cultures . . . science" has been added by hand at the bottom of 
the page, with a sign indicating where it should be inserted in the text. 

19. “9.” inserted by hand to replace “7.” 

Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West (New York: Longmans, 
Green and Co., 1939). 

20. “and even rejection” has been inserted by hand. 

Aristotle, Politics, II, vii, 1269a. 

“—and every past is as such impressive—” has been inserted by hand. 

“Bellarmine” has been added by hand to replace “Bossuet,” which has been crossed out. 

21. Comma after “Judaism” added by the editors in conformity with the text of Rauschning. 

22. The typescript reads “had probably”: a handwritten sign indicates that the order should be 
reversed. 

The typescript reads “had doubtless”: a handwritten sign indicates that the order should be 
reversed. 

John Dillinger (1902-34) was a famous American bank robber in the twenties and thirties. 

“a political movement without” has been added by hand to replace the words “lack of,” which 
have been crossed out. 



German Nihilism • 377 


“non-entity” has been added by hand to replace “chimaera,” which has been crossed out. 

“a political movement without” has been added by hand to replace “lack of,” which has been 
crossed out. 

“would have” has been added by hand to replace “had,” which has been crossed out. 

23. has been added after “aims” by the editors for reasons of clarity. 

Comma inserted by hand after “destroy.” 

24. “form” has been added by typewriter to replace “have,’’ which has been crossed out. 

The typescript continues after “salesman” with "with the possible exception of their foreign 
minister,” which has been crossed out. 

Comma after “For” inserted by hand. 

“even” is a typewritten insertion. 

“Das” instead of “Dies” in the German text (see Ernst Jiinger, Der Arbeiter , 1932, p. 201; 
Werke, Bd. 6, 1963, p. 221). 

25. The typescript has “destruction,” after “the business of’ with the latter part crossed out and 
corrected by hand. 

26. “Der ewige Friede ist ein Traum, und nicht einmal ein schoner, und der Krieg ein Glied in 
Gottes Weltordnung. In ihm entfalten sich die edelsten Tugenden des Menschen, Muth und En- 
tsagung, Pflichttreue und Opferwilligkeit mit Einsetzung des Lebens. Ohne den Krieg wiirde die 
Welt im Materialismus versumpfen.” (“Permanent peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one, 
and war is a law of God’s order in the world, by which the noblest virtues of man, courage and self- 
denial, loyality and self-sacrifice, even to the point of death, are developed. Without war the world 
would deteriorate into materialism.”) Letter to Dr. J. K. Bluntschli, 11 December 1880, in Field- 
Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke as a Correspondent , trans. Mary Herms (New York: Harper 
and Brothers, 1893), p. 272. German text: Helmuth von Moltke, Gesammelte Schriften und Denk- 
wiirdigkeiten (Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1892), Bd. 5, p. 194. 

27. "made” replaces the word “recognized,” which has been crossed out. 

“Uber den Schmerz,” in Blatter und Steine (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlaganstalt, 1934), pp. 
154-213, in particular p. 213 (Werke: Essays I [Stuttgart: Emst Klett Verlag, 1960], pp. 151-98, in 
particular p. 197). 

““—das System —”” has been inserted by hand. 

28. Comma after “To explain German militarism” inserted by hand. 

“militarism,” in “To discover the root of ” is a typewritten insertion, replacing the word 
“civilisation,” which has been crossed out. 

“the history of’ has been inserted by hand. 

Semi-colon after “best policy” inserted by hand. 

In the typescript only the parenthesis at the end of “The two most famous . . .” is printed. The 
lapidary style of the sentence, however, suggests that Professor Strauss intended this to be an aside 
remark. For this reason, the editors have added the opening parenthesis. Above the words “The two 
most famous,” there is a sign referring to a handwritten note at the bottom of the page, reading “Cf. 
also More’s “hedonistic” utopia A Plato’s austere Republic .” 

In the typescript, “honour of Germany” is followed by a sentence which has been crossed out 
entirely: “But the way in which this reaction was effected, was too much determined by the polemic 
attitude against the enlightenment.” 

“the object of enlightened” has been inserted by hand. 

“as well as commonsense ( Verstandigkeit )” has been inserted by hand. 

In the margin of the typscript, next to the sentence “Opposing philosophy” there is a sign 
referring to a handwritten note at the bottom of the page, reading “An amusing example in Grote’s 
History of Greece, vol. 8, Everyman, p. 342, n. 1.” The editors were unable to trace the reference to 
Grote’s History of Greece. 

Before “flower,” the word “fine” has been crossed out. 

29. “modem” before “civilisation” has been added by typewriter to replace “Western,” which 
has been crossed out. 

Before “ real ,” the word "return” has been crossed out in the typescript. 

“interpreted” after “i.e.” has been inserted by typewriter. 



378 • Interpretation 


The words “and therefore distorted” have been added by hand. 

30. The words “It may [. . .] from” have been inserted by hand to replace "In his,” which has 
been crossed out. 

The words “which [. . .] subject” have been inserted by hand, to replace “we read,” which has 
been crossed out. 

Brackets around “Newton” have been added by hand. 

“in a word” has been added by hand, to replace “therefore,” which has been crossed out. 
Commas have been added by the editors. 

“stood up” has been inserted by hand to replace “arose,” which has been crossed out. 

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil , 252-53. 

Above the word “radicalism,” the word “profoundness” has been added by hand, possibly as an 
alternative. 

has been inserted by hand, to replace a comma. 

In the typescript, “the” before “classical” is followed by “ideal of,” which has been crossed out. 

31. Following “doubt:” the sentence “it are the English, and not the Germans, who deserve to 
be an imperial nation” has been crossed out. 

“populos” has been inserted by hand. See Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 851. 

The words “to spare the vanquished and to crush the arrogant” have been added by hand 
beneath the text with a sign. See Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 853. After “ superbos ” the following handwrit¬ 
ten words have been crossed out: not the way of Ariovistus, but only the way of Caesar and 
Augustus is the road to empire.” 



Corrections to Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism”: 
Published in Interpretation, vol. 26 no.3 (Spring 1999), 
pp. 353-78. 


The transcription of Leo Strauss’s handwritten insertions in and additions to 
the typescript “German Nihilism” was checked against the original by Wiebke 
Meier, Munich. The text published in Interpretation should be corrected as fol¬ 
lows: 

Page 355, line 2 from bottom: National socialism should read National So¬ 
cialism 

Page 356, line 4: motive led to nihilism, should read motive led to nihilism. 
[The word led is underlined twice.] 

Page 356, line 5: young atheist should read young atheists 
Page 356, line 23: German nihilism is related should read German militarism 
is related 

Page 356, line 5 from bottom: the break in the tradition should read the break 
with the tradition 

Page 356, line 4 from bottom: from the rejection of modem civilisation to the 
rejection of the principle of civilisation as such should read from the rejection of 
the principles of modem civilisation to the rejection of the principles of civilisa¬ 
tion as such 

Page 359, line 17: it was not a sound demand should read it has not a sound 
element 

Page 360, line 3 from bottom: argument, or more precisely should read argu¬ 
ment, more precisely 

Page 360, line 2 from bottom: about the probable future should read about 
the future [probable crossed out by Leo Strauss] 

Page 360, line 1 from bottom: of the past, and above all, of the present. 
should read of the past and, above all, of the present. 

Page 361, line 2: emphasized before that should read emphasized the fact 
that 

Page 362, line 6: the attention it should read the attention which it 
Page 362, line 12: should read Baumler [Alfred Baeumler, author of Nietzsche, 
der Philosoph und Politiker, Leipzig 1931] 

Page 364, line 14: a servant or slave should read a servant and slave 
Page 364, line 15: distinction which should read distinction, which 
Page 364, line 28: which are more easily should read which are most easily 
Page 373, lines 10-11: in which the question of who is to exercise military 


© INTERPRETATION, Fall 2000, Vol. 28, No. 1 



34 • Interpretation 

rule became the order of the day should read in which the question of who is 
to exercise planetary rule became the order of the day. 

Page 373, note 4: a few illegible handwritten words should read Strauss 
wrote: Cabaret des Westens, Ullstein 

Page 375, note 11: Illegible word should read Strauss wrote: Baumler [see 
correction to page 362, line 12].